I had never seen one, despite having been involved in collecting John Steinbeck for more than 40 years. I didn’t think I would ever see one. The book in question is a very special edition of The Grapes of Wrath. It is one of only 10 copies. Ten!
It seems that Helen Gahagan Douglas and some Hollywood celebrities formed the “John Steinbeck Committee” after publication of his novel in order to raise money for migrant farm workers. Douglas was a liberal politician that Richard Nixon and others portrayed as “pink,” meaning communist-oriented. She is the one who named Nixon “Tricky Dick.”
At this time, according to Steinbeck’s best biographer, Jackson J. Benson, Steinbeck was adamantly trying to extricate himself from the position in which others placed him, “feeling that if he could withdraw his name from circulation, he might be able to escape (publicity, attention, being pigeon-holed, etc.).”
Steinbeck made two exceptions to his efforts to escape. He wrote a preface to a book written by Tom Collins, the co-dedicatee of his masterpiece novel. The Collins book was never published. And he allowed Douglas and her committee to use his name to raise money for migrant workers. To aid their cause, Steinbeck had 10 copies of The Grapes of Wrath specially bound in three-quarter leather with an extra page tipped in. This extra page states, “This Book Is One Of Ten/Bound Especially At The Request Of/John Steinbeck/For Presentation To….” These books were auctioned off at a banquet, after which Steinbeck filled in the recipient’s name and then signed his own. Obviously, these are very special books.
I was lucky enough to acquire one recently. It came from the son of a man who worked at Viking, Steinbeck’s publisher. Once the book came into my possession, I discovered some interesting information. I’m willing to bet that most people would have assumed that Steinbeck had first edition copies bound up in this special manner. Not so. All of them are later printings. Mine is a fifth printing. To a lot of authors, first editions and fifth printings are all about the same, and rarely do authors have stacks and stacks of their own first editions just lying around the house.
And, as it turns out, this copy isn’t signed. After checking with some knowledgeable sources, there appears to be two explanations. One, this could be what’s called an over-run. In almost all limited editions, more books are manufactured than what the limitation calls for. For example, if the limited edition is to be comprised of 350 copies, 360 copies might actually be manufactured. This is done in case there is a problem with one or more of the books within that series. So, even though this book says it is one of 10 copies, it is possible that 12 or 13 or even 15 copies were actually so bound. Two, it could also be that not all 10 copies of the book were actually sold. One must remember that today we think of The Grapes of Wrath as a masterpiece and one of the best novels of the 20th Century, perhaps THE great American Novel, and that if any of us had been at that banquet we would have purchased every copy we could. However, back in 1939-1940 it had not yet achieved such a lofty status. It certainly was a very controversial book, but to pay perhaps 10 times the cover price was probably asking a lot. It is unlikely that all 10 copies sold.
What does all this mean? Well, without a doubt one would prefer to have a signed copy. Such a book would be worth an enormous amount of money today, but not having a recipient’s name and Steinbeck’s signature doesn’t make this copy less special — just less expensive. And now we all have seen one. What a thrill!